and Christian Readers
Chuck Colson's website, 'BreakPoint online', ran an interview with the author Connie Neal, who has written a book called What's A Christian to Do with Harry Potter? (discussed below). Soon afterwards, he published a disclaimer, saying that he did not "encourage Christian parents to encourage their children to see the movie or read the books" because "there is much better literature available for children with less potential to lead people into the occult". This seemed to run counter to an earlier piece by Colson (se p.14 of Neal's book) which spoke positively of the books' value for children.
It is hard to say what Colson means by literature with the potential to lead people into the occult. Is it the mention of magic? Some conclusions can be drawn, because Colson also published a list of recommended reading, which he calls "classic children's literature". I was astounded to find that three-quarters of the list is fantasy literature or mythology. It appears that Harry Potter is not recommended whereas Greek myths, Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales and Ursula LeGuin's mystical Earthsea books are.
What principles are in operation here? Clearly, the use of magic in a story is not the issue. Nor is the discussion of other gods and deities. Is it that Colson's list is of books which spring from a Christian worldview? If so, why does he recommend Aladdin and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights and books of mythology?
This episode reaffirmed for me the confusion Christians feel when they are engaging with cultural expression. We seem to have a grab-bag of ideas about how we should relate to the world, without any strong framework on which we agree. We often have strong opinions about what should and should not be read or viewed, but our theological back-up for our views often falls short of convincing. One person is happy to read material that comes from a non-Christian mind; another feels that to do so is to walk into temptation. The issue is heightened when children are involved, because of the sense that they are more prone to exploitation by worldly thinking and are in need of protection.
The recent Harry Potter film, and the books that preceded it, have revealed once again that Christians vary greatly in their views of what it means to be "in the world but not of the world". We have vastly differing views of what it means to keep our minds on the things that are pure (Phil 4:8). And we are yet to come up with a very clear theological framework by which to make progress on cultural issues.
I have read three efforts by Christian writers to engage with the Harry Potter phenomenon, and to advise others on how to do so. Each has some strengths; each has some weaknesses. Below I offer my assessment of them, as well as some thoughts on the general issue of engaging with the world.
Francis Bridger is the Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, and a declared Potter fan. He enjoys the books, and finds them useful for contemplating moral and social issues--as well as fun. His book, A Charmed Life: the Spirituality of Potterworld, encourages Christians to see the good that can be achieved by being positive towards Harry Potter, all the while being confident in the truth of Christianity and bringing that truth to bear on the discussion. A Charmed Life is a theologically astute, practical approach (Bridger lectures in ethics) which sometimes borders on being generous to a fault. He wants Christians not to panic over Potter, but to be confident that the gospel and Christian morality actually come away from an encounter with Rowling's books looking very healthy.
Through close interaction with the four Potter books, Bridger seeks to demonstrate that the reason they are so popular is, ironically, they are so realistic to the lives of young readers. Harry Potter is Everyboy, or as the series describes him, "the boy who lived".
Bridger emphasizes that fantasy is not about telling lies, but about telling the truth in a different world. Good fantasy takes the material of this world and transforms it into another realm; but it still has to make sense in our realm in order to be satisfying. In this way, it is not about lying, but about finding the truths behind the surface of things. If we know that a ring cannot really magically control a person such that they are led into evil (as it does in Lord of the Rings), we also know that at a deeper level we are controlled by external objects and forces which cause us to fall deeper and deeper into sin (the Bible calls this idolatry).
Bridger admits that readers will not find "Christ-centred morality" in these novels; rather, they will find "the complex realism of moral decision-making and the existence of fundamental virtues while at the same time recognising the struggle between good and evil" (p. 84). His chapter on the 'theology' of Potterworld (he begins this section by pointing out that God is hardly mentioned in the series thus far) draws out the themes of atonement, self-sacrifice, mercy and the afterlife, as they are employed and reshaped/distorted in the Potter stories. Bridger's most valuable criticism is that there is no idea of resurrection in these books, and that this most defining characteristic of Christianity provides many of the 'solutions' for which the stories seem to be reaching.
Bridger's book is intellectually accomplished, but probably won't address some of the issues that concern Christian parents, such as whether these books surreptitiously lure children towards the occult. However, by reading Bridger's book, parents may find they are able to answer that question more effectively for themselves. Bridger encourages parents to "face their fears", as indeed Harry Potter himself does, and develop a well-informed, theologically sound response.
Connie Neal's book, What's a Christian to do with Harry Potter? has received the most attention of any Christian response. She has an active website through which she continues the work of her book. Neal provides the material that Christian parents and educators are looking for: a collection of views from 'both sides' of the debate; a simple explanation of the features of different kinds of fantasy writing; an overview of the Potter books (especially useful for those who are 'against' the books and haven't read them); why children like the books.
I particularly liked the way Neal applied the infuriating question, "What would Jesus do?" (so common in evangelical parlance that it is abbreviated to WWJD?) to the debate. She lists a couple of pages of possible responses Jesus might have made to the books, including reading them and not reading them. It is an unanswerable question, one which people use to support their own views on a subject. However, it can be a useful way of reflecting on a moral or ethical dilemma, often because the possible responses we come up with for Jesus are far different to what we ourselves would imagine doing.
Neal's major concern is the way Christians treat each other over the Harry Potter issue. In this, she reveals her hand--that she considers the reading of the books a 'disputable matter', one over which Christians can rightly differ. In other words, she believes that those who oppose Harry Potter and urge all Christian everywhere to do the same are in fact acting unchristianly. Neal looks at the way Christians have attacked each other over their attitudes to Rowling's books, and urges them to take a step back and think through the biblical material on how we should relate to brothers and sisters who disagree with us.
Although the bond between believers is Neal's primary interest, she also presents some clear biblical teaching on what aspects of magic, witchcraft and the spiritual world are clearly forbidden territory: don't cast spells, don't consult the dead, don't offer children as human sacrifices. She then gently points out that reading the novels is not equivalent to engaging in these behaviours.
The last section of Neal's book looks at the different approaches to culture which parents can take with their children. She recommends 'fitting them with armour' rather than 'building a wall', and gives persuasive reasons as to why this is a better approach. She also considers (in far less detail than Bridger) the ways in which the Potter stories interact with biblical ideas, how the stories can be employed in gospel conversations, and how they can help Christian parents in the moral development of their children. The tone is light and instructive, the use of the Bible good (if a little superficial in places), and there is enough good advice here for most inquisitive and concerned parents.
Neal's book struck me as one written from within a very confident Christian culture - north American Protestantism - where the Christian worldview has enouugh intellectual respect for those within it to be able to construct their cultural thinking without knee-jerk reactions or fear of losing their faith. At the same time, the book makes clear that the cost of this strong Christian culture is the 'civil wars' which emerge within it. The challenge is to serve each other in love, and only to fight the battles worth fighting. And then, to fight cleanly.
Another good attempt at drawing Harry Potter into contrast and comparison with the gospel is Hogwarts or Hogwash? The Harry Potter Phenomenon and Your Child, by Peter Furst & Craig Heilmann (Lime Grove, Rozelle, 2001). The authors aim to help Christians utilise the Harry Potter books in gospel discussions. They take a 'worldview' approach, asking how the Potter worldview intersects with the Christian worldview, and highlighting points of similarity and difference. The book is plainly written and easy to read, with plenty of quotes from the Potter books and from Scripture, in order to support the discussion.
Part One (50pp) deals briefly with big issues of creation, sin, judgement and death, demonstrating some of the key differences in how Rowling and the Bible tackle these questions. Part Two (100pp) is a less coherent collection of short chapters on how Christians might relate to culture, the occult, and biblical analogies in Harry Potter.
The weakness of this book is that it is trying to do many things in a short space, having (I presume) been written very quickly. It wants to help parents, aid evangelism, analyse the nature of culture, and compare and contrast worldviews. It does all of these things a little bit, but none of them to great satisfaction. Little attention is paid to the very significant point that the Potter books are plainly fictional, and Scripture is not. In comparison with the other two books, it seems insufficiently thought through. Nevertheless, it is recommended for its usefulness to parents, preachers and Scripture and Sunday School teachers who are looking for ways of integrating the most popular cultural phenomenon of the last and next few years into their quest to honour the living Lord Jesus.
According to Furst and Heilmann, "the greatest threat of the Harry Potter series…is that it promotes a worldview contrary to that presented in the Bible" (p.97). This is a debatable statement: is Rowling seeking to promote any particular worldview? To me, she seems to make the occasional moral or metaphysical point (usually attached in a sentimental way to family or friendship), rather than develop a worldview. The Potter series isn't that didactic, or that complete.
In contrast, the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, written by another British author, Philip Pullman, overtly seeks to promote an anti-Christian worldview. Pullman hasn't achieved the same level of international fame of Rowling, but his writing is arguably more powerful and more enduring. He has said in interviews that he believes churches to be bad and sin to be a 'developmental stage'. In his novels (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), he explores the idea of the felix culpa, the 'fortunate fall', where loss of innocence becomes a positive vision rather than one that is mourned. His chief target is C.S. Lewis, whom Pullman calls 'anti-life', showing a contempt for the physical world. Pullman said, "I wanted to emphasize the simple physical truth of things, the absolute primacy of the material life, rather than the spiritual or the afterlife." Pullman wrote his series in direct opposition to the Christian gospel.
Here we have worldviews colliding: the Christian (albeit Platonic) view of two worlds in C.S. Lewis versus the one-world view of Pullman. How does this affect our approach to the series? Does it mean that Christians ought not to read it? Does it mean that we should seek to have the books banned from schools?
On the contrary, it gives an opportunity to examine the coherence and power of the Christian 'true story', because we can experience via imaginative writing a world which is based on something else. One reviewer, Daniel Moloney, has suggested that Pullman's trilogy reveals the need for redemption and a solution to the world's 'wrongness'. Writing in the journal First Things, Moloney writes that a convincing solution is almost impossible for the atheist writer:
Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are.
The solution Pullman offers - a D.H. Lawrence-like celebration of the things of the flesh based on an innocent kiss between the two main characters, Will and Lyra - is ultimately implausible. Yes, it is fantasy, but it is still too hard to believe. Moloney continues:
The Christian myth [that is, true story] has such a powerful hold over our narrative imagination that it is probably impossible to write a believable epic, especially one about the Last Things, without relying on it extensively.
Moloney concludes that by unsuccessfully opposing Christian ideas about sin, the Fall, heaven and hell, Pullman in fact makes those ideas themselves even more persuasive. Once again, the strength of the Christian worldview is revealed in the face of attempts to create an alternative. This does not lead to the conclusion that any Christian can or should read Pullman's books. As always, we must assess our own hearts and the hearts of those for whom we are responsible. However, it does reaffirm the confidence we can have in the Christian worldview, that even in the realm of fantasy it is difficult to come up with a convincing alternative.
It seems to me that a real evil in all of this is found outside the books themselves. The merchandising surrounding any children's entertainment these days is overwhelming and Harry Potter is a merchandiser's dream. Although some of it has been much higher quality than usual (I really like the plush toys!), it is in this area that harm may be done. Some of the games and toys push the magical dimension of Harry Potter beyond the story and into the everyday activities of children (who could hardly have avoided the advertising, even if they wanted to). They bring activities such as spell-casting and alchemy into the realm of play in a manner that might encourage some children to look further into such activities.
On balance, I still don't consider it is likely to do very much spiritual harm--perhaps as much as 'killing' your brother with a flashing sword during a game of space soldiers. It might be introducing some strange ideas about how the world operates that may be hard to shake in later life. It is hard to say where the imagination will lead a child.
Nevertheless, the merchandisers are to blame for another kind of moral corruption. They fuel the greed and envy of children for their own pecuniary gain. My children get bombarded by Harry Potter advertising every day - on TV, on the back of cereal boxes, on posters, T-shirts and anything else considered as advertising 'space'. Perhaps Christians could expend some energy kicking up a stink about McDonalds tie-ins and the greed and discontent they breed in our families.
After reflecting at length on these Christian responses to Harry Potter and wondering about why I feel so differently on the issue to some of my Christian friends, I'm tempted to think that it boils down to this particular question: do you like stories or not?
Some other books on Harry Potter from Christian publishing houses, which haven't been discussed in this review:
Richard Abanes, Harry Potter and the Bible: the Menace behind the Magick (Christian Publications)
Philip Plyming, Harry Potter and the Meaning of Life (Grove Books)
John Houghton, A Closer Look at Harry Potter (Kingsway)